Regular skin contact with rubber products poses a risk of allergic contact dermatitis to a small but significant percentage of the population. Unless it is diagnosed and treated early, this type of dermatitis can result in total and permanent disability. The rubber manufacturing industry has been aware of this hazard for decades but has done little or nothing to warn workers and consumers.
For at least fifty years, the rubber industry has been aware that chemical accelerators, which survive the vulcanization process or are formed by it, have the potential to be released from rubber products and absorbed by the skin, leading to allergic contact dermatitis in certain users. The following case study illustrates the effects of prolonged contact with bulk rubber hose on one of our clients, an industrial worker at a manufacturing facility in Buffalo, New York.
For approximately four years, beginning in 2001, our client manually fed sections of rubber hose through a machine in order to cut the hose into measured lengths. He did this as many as one thousand times a day.
In August 2004, our client began to experience a burning sensation when he washed his hands. His skin became irritated, particularly in the space between his left index finger and thumb, where the rubber hose he handled all day long came into regular contact with his skin. During the following weeks, his rash worsened and spread across the rest of his left hand and wrist, and eventually to his fingers and the backs and palms of his hands. This rash created an itchy, burning sensation in the affected areas and a feeling of “pins and needles.” At first, the rash improved on our client’s days off from work.
Because our client had worked with the same materials for years with no adverse effects, his doctor did not initially believe his rash was occupationally related.
The doctor prescribed topical creams and ointments for the rash, and, beginning in the winter of 2005, our client wore gloves at work whenever he could. He could not wear gloves when applying labels to finished hoses. In spite of these precautions, his condition worsened; the dermatitis had become so widespread by the spring of 2005 that he could no longer work. The dermatitis spread to his arms, torso, back, face and neck. His doctor referred him to a dermatologist specializing in skin disease.
The dermatologist scheduled patch testing to determine what was causing our client’s dermatitis. The results indicated he was allergic to two common rubber accelerators, mercaptobenzothiazole and thiuram, and was most likely suffering from dermatitis due to contact with rubber products at work.
In November 2008, the New York State Worker’s Compensation Board granted our client total and permanent disability.
Two companies manufactured the type of rubber hose our client worked with. Neither company issued any kind of warning about the potential of certain chemicals in the hose they manufactured to cause allergic contact dermatitis. The industry knew for decades that such chemicals could and did cause sensitization and allergic reaction in both consumers and industrial workers. One company’s medical director even acknowledged that the medical profession had been aware since at least the 1950’s that these chemicals could persist in finished rubber products. She also testified that anyone who regularly touched and used automotive hose materials would be exposed to these potentially sensitizing chemicals.
Several dozen employees of one company were forced into early retirement by persistent dermatitis resulting from exposure to the same chemicals responsible for our client’s disease.
Neither our client nor his employer was aware of the risk inherent in working with rubber materials. The manufacturers were fully aware of this risk but failed to warn workers and even indicated that wearing gloves was an unnecessary precaution. They exposed our client and countless other workers to serious and often irreparable harm.